Author of Nancy Drew books pens weekly newspaper column at 96

Still writing after all these years

Posted: Thursday, January 03, 2002

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Millie Benson's desk doesn't stand out from any others in the newsroom. Tucked away in a corner, it is cluttered with papers and books.

The original author of the Nancy Drew mystery books, now at age 96, is still writing -- now a weekly column about everyday life and older folks for The Blade newspaper.

''Writing is a way of life for me,'' she said. ''It's like getting up and having breakfast.''

Benson has written more than 130 books and countless short stories and newspaper articles. She is best known for bringing to life a young sleuth named Nancy Drew who inspired and captivated generations of girls.

She wrote 23 of the 30 original Nancy Drew stories using the pseudonym Carolyn Keene, launching a series that is still in print and has sold over 200 million books in 17 languages.

''I always knew the series would be successful,'' Benson said. ''I just never expected it to be the blockbuster that it has been. I'm glad that I had that much influence on people.''

Edward Stratemeyer, the famed book publisher behind Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boys, asked Benson in 1930 to write the Nancy Drew books based on two-page plot outlines he had written. She had already produced three books for his publishing syndicate.

That year she wrote ''The Secret of the Old Clock,'' in which Nancy stops a gang of thieves and discovers an inheritance in an antique clock.

''It's pretty much fair to say she created the character of Nancy Drew,'' said Carolyn Dyer, a University of Iowa journalism professor who wrote a book about the series.

The world never knew Benson was the writer behind the early stories until 1980 when she testified in a court case involving Nancy Drew's publisher and the rights to the series and other books. Benson had signed a secrecy contract and was paid $125 per book.

She has never collected royalties from the books, movies and board games.

''I make no profit from anything in connection with it,'' Benson said. ''And I didn't make anything when I wrote.''

Still, she is not bitter.

''It was my contribution to the children of America,'' she said.

Benson began writing while growing up in Ladora, Iowa.

''I always wanted to be a writer from the time I could walk,'' she said. ''I had no other thought except that I wanted to write.''

She wrote children's stories when she was in grade school. Her first story sold for $2.50 to a religious magazine. And she was the first person to receive a master's degree in journalism at the University of Iowa, according to the school.

''I wrote steadily all my life from the time I was 14 years of age,'' she said. ''I wrote books from the time I was in early college.''

From 1930 to 1953 she turned out 130 books for young people, including the Penny Parker mystery series.

''Writing is hard work,'' she said. ''I don't have any favorite type writing. It's what you do for work.''

She's engaging and witty and admittedly opinionated. She's a passionate worker and has only taken three or four sick days during her 56-year newspaper career.

''She has built a reputation as an outstanding journalist as well as an author,'' said Ron Royhab, The Blade's executive editor. ''Millie has a work ethic that would be a standard for anybody.''

The slight, white-haired writer said she's been interviewed countless times, sighing that she tires of the same questions.

''There isn't anything that isn't known about me,'' Benson said. She would rather avoid all the attention.

She still receives fan mail each day. Collectors send boxes of books for her to sign. But she can't reply personally and sends a form letter thanking them for writing.

Benson said she remembers receiving only two or three critical notes.

''The ones who hated it probably didn't write to me,'' she said.

In a way, she's a lot like the character she made famous. And her passions have not been limited to writing. She loved swimming and diving years ago -- especially high-diving. She remembers jumping from bridges into the Iowa River during her college days.

''I almost hit a log once,'' she said with a laugh.

She played golf until just a few years ago. She learned to fly at age 59 after the death of her second husband. She traveled around the world, flying to archaeological digs in Central America.

And she wrote an aviation column about her flying days.

She was introduced to journalism through her first husband, Asa Wirt, who worked with The Associated Press. Benson began working at the Toledo Times in 1944 and later went to work at The Blade.

''Journalism was made for young people, not for people my age,'' she said. ''But you need it more when you're my age. It keeps you alive, and it keeps you active, and it keeps you moving with the times.''

Failing eyesight and a few broken bones over the years have made it a struggle for her to type out her thoughts. Sometimes she needs the help of co-workers. But the words come to her just as fast as they ever did.

Benson is cutting back to writing one column a month. It's a move she finds hard to accept.

''It's saying goodbye to more than just a job,'' she said. ''It's saying goodbye to my family.

''I know I'll miss it more than anything in my life.''

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